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Analysis & Opinion
14.03.08 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: An Investment Of Diminishing Returns?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Stephen Blank, Ethan Burger, Alexander Domrin, James Jatras, Eugene Kolesnikov, Eric Kraus, Edward Lozansky

Last week, a sweeping article by Peter Finn appeared in the Washington Post. Entitled “Russia Pumps Tens of Millions Into Burnishing Image Abroad,” it described an increasingly sophisticated and well funded effort “to build and project to the world an image of a country where the economy is booming and democracy is developing. The campaign is designed to counter what the government and many people here see as unrelenting and unfair Western criticism of declining political freedoms under President Vladimir Putin.”

As Peter Finn describes it, “The Kremlin is pumping tens of millions of dollars into various forms of public diplomacy. They include new media ventures to target international audiences; foundations to promote Russian language and culture around the world; conferences to charm Western opinion-makers; and nongovernmental organizations that are setting up shop in Western capitals to scrutinize the failings of Western democracy.”

This latter one is a brand new and a more sophisticated approach to projecting Russia’s softer power and influence than establishing an English-language TV channel “Russia Today” or hiring a major international PR firm, Ketchum, to get Russia’s side of the story out to international audiences.

In 2007 Moscow established a range of NGOs, funded both by the government and by private donations, to promote Russia’s cultural heritage through the study of Russian language abroad and gather information on the state of democracy in Western Europe and in the United States.

The Russki Mir Foundation, a new grant-dispensing organization headed by the Kremlin loyalist Vyacheslav Nikonov, receives $20 million annually from the Russian government to champion the Russian language. Apart from its cultural function, it is also a tool for projecting Russia’s political influence, not only in the Former Soviet Union, but throughout the Western and Third World as well.

Russians have drawn their own conclusions from studying how U.S. NGOs – the National Endowment for Democracy, Freedom House, National Democratic Institute or International Republican Institute – project American soft power abroad by championing human rights and democracy standards congruent with American values and U.S. foreign policy objectives.

In early 2008, Russia opened the Institute for European Democracy in Paris, headed by a former Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Member Natalia Narochnitskaya, a religious conservative with a peculiar view of international history. It is focused on gathering information on human rights violations in EU member states and disseminating this information to the West. It will also educate the Western public about the Russian notion of a functioning democracy. A similar democracy-promotion NGO, funded by Russian private companies, is said to have opened in Washington D.C.

It remains to be seen how effective these Russian NGOs will be in countering the dominance of U.S. democracy promotion institutions and spreading Russia’s views on the democratic process. In fact, a good question is whether their target audience is in the West or inside Russia?

A broader question is whether Russia is getting a good return on its massive investment in image burnishing projects. Was setting up Russia’s own democracy promotion and human rights advocacy NGOs a smart thing to do? How effective could they be in changing the perceptions in the West about democracy in Russia? Will they be a match to Freedom House and the National Endowment for Democracy?

How effective are Russia’s various English-language image projects? How large an audience in the West are they reaching?

So far no one in Moscow seems to know the answer to this question. Is the money well-spent to bring several dozen Western Russia analysts each year to the Valday Forum in Moscow, which includes a marathon question and answers session with Putin? How does one get to be invited to such events? In short, will this investment in image improvement and soft power projection be money well spent or will it end up being an investment of diminishing returns?

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Eric Kraus, Nikitsky Russia/CIS Opportunities Fund:

It is most fortunate that the Russian budget is flush with cash – the amount spent on this quixotic mission will be no more than a rounding error, an exercise in futility, to be forgotten soon enough.

Casting aside the question of whether Russia should be trying to sell its brand abroad like laundry soap, the essential point is that any such campaign would need to be carefully orchestrated throughout the government – and we can expect snowstorms in hell before that happens.

As just one example, hardly two weeks following the launch of the Russia Today television channel with a budget of some $30 million, the authorities revoked the visa of Hermitage Funds’ Bill Browder. They might just as well have thrown the money away. Until his yet-to-be-explained exile, Browder was the most effective and persuasive supporter of the Putin administration in the international arena, notably in the World Economic Forum, as well as in the global media. Not only did this apparently opaque exclusion generate massively negative headlines all over the world, but perhaps understandably, his subsequent public interventions have been anything but supportive.

Russia Today promptly fell between two stools. It is – perhaps unfairly – seen as a Kremlin mouthpiece. Its programming is dull, overly cautious, and certainly fails to provide a compelling viewing experience. Rather than attempting to build a Russia BBC ex nihilo, they would have done well to emulate Venezuela’s brilliant, exciting and openly partisan Telesud, which has been very successful in helping to spread Chavez’ gospel throughout Latin America.

The attempt to build up Russia’s political image among the Atlantic Alliance is doomed in advance. Arrayed against it are all of the media hacks Menatep can buy, a very professionally orchestrated campaign of disinformation centered around Khodorkovsky’s lawyer, Robert Amsterdam, and the huge influence and money of the Washington neo-con faction, self-righteously angry at those upstart Russians who dared to question the moral superiority of the superpower.

Russia’s newly assertive and independent foreign policy is most disconcerting for London and Washington, while the reassertion of control over vital mineral reserves causes real pain. Anyone who imagines that the mainstream Western media are independent of the fundamental economic and political interests of their governments has obviously not watched the BBC lately.

Not that Russia does not have an excellent story to tell. It does, and the world at large is listening – not only the sunset G7 powers, but the new rising powers of Latin America and Asia, where your correspondent is currently traveling.

Here, Putin is universally held in respect verging upon awe – the tough, focused nationalist who has restored Russia’s place on the globe. The question most often heard regarding the elections was “Why on earth would Putin step down now, when so much remains to be done?”

Reminiscent of the French aristocracy in the early 20th century, the Atlantic powers still imagine that the sun revolves around them. It no longer does – the decision to hold the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi gives evidence of Russia’s new global image.

The West is far too smugly secure in its sense of inherent political superiority to consider alternative versions of “democracy.” To imagine that they will suddenly find it acceptable that Russia seeks to advance her own diplomatic interest is delusional. Instead, Russia, Inc., can best improve its brand by exporting the rich and vibrant culture: hot new fashion, the world’s greatest ballet, new literature, sublime music, Europe’s top clubbing scene, and top tennis players. Don’t look for understanding and forgiveness – seek to inspire envy.

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Alexander N. Domrin, Senior Councilor for External Relations, Pepeliaev, Goltsblat & Partners Law Firm (Moscow, St. Petersburg); Doctor of Juridical Science, University of Pennsylvania Law School:

Russia doesn’t have a problem with its image “abroad” per se. It’s true that the United States, some countries in Europe and in the near abroad display an acute syndrome of Putinophobia. Yet, in most of the other parts of the world, Russia has actually improved its name and reputation in the last eight years.

There are numerous problems in Russia that should be resolved, and many aspects of its economic, political and social life that should be changed and improved. But they should be changed not in order to please the critics in the West, but because they should be changed.

Similarly, it would be ridiculous for the Russian government to turn a blind eye to all of the irregularities of Kasyanov’s campaigners and register him as a presidential candidate only to avoid a new wave of Russia-bashing. Even in 1996, the “super democratic” year in Russian history, if Western propagandists are to be trusted, the Central Election Commission refused to register Galina Starovoitova because a random examination of signatures presented by Starovoitova for her registration as a presidential candidate showed that half of them were done by the same hand.

It’s not only a right of the Russian government to inform the foreign audience of what’s going on in the country and to explain its position, but also an obligation. Promotion of Russia’s cultural heritage abroad through the Russky Mir Foundation, and the creation of Migranyan’s and Narochnitskaya’s think tanks in New York and Paris are certainly a movement in the right direction.

Vekselberg’s Faberge eggs no longer suffice. The Alfa Fellowship Program should inspire other national banks and corporations. Just like Russian money replaces Western funding of Russian NGOs, an equivalent to the Fulbright Program should be established to provide an opportunity for foreign scholars to come and study Russia, without bias and superstition, and without a hidden agenda of how to “reform” the country in tune with alien political models and ideological patterns.

Russia’s new initiatives in the sphere of public diplomacy are not aimed at a “regime change,” and don’t have anything to do with the activities of organizations like NDI, IRI, and NED that completely discredited themselves while orchestrating “color revolutions” in various parts of the world.

Providing financial support – to quote the U.S. Russian Democracy Act of 2002 – to pro-American “political parties and coalitions” and “reform-minded politicians” (or “jackals,” using Putin’s eloquent terminology) is in direct violation of Russian legislation.

We should also be aware of natural limitations on the attempts to “burnish Russia’s image” in the West. Firstly, overseas propaganda works effectively, for instance, to make 69 percent of Americans (in a Washington Post poll of September 2003) believe that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the attacks of September 11 and that Iraqis were among hijackers. It is simply impossible to compete with this machine of lies and deceptions.

Secondly, there are enough people in the West who will always consider Russia an “evil empire” and who will only admire Russia when they see it on its knees. Russophobic views are overrepresented in the camps of all the main presidential candidates in the United States – just look at the names of their foreign policy advisers.

To paraphrase one of their statements in last week’s article in the Washington Post, a strong, sovereign, prosperous and respected Russia is “just bad, bad PR” to their ears. The new Russian administration should remain faithful to the policy defined by Vladimir Putin during his meeting with Angela Merkel, and guarantee that these advisers won’t have another reason to praise Russia.

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Eugene Kolesnikov, Private Consultant, The Netherlands:

The goals of Russia's international public diplomacy and its implementation strategy are not sufficiently clear. First of all, I believe that Russia should have two completely different sets of public diplomacy goals, strategies and tools: one for the states in the sphere of vital Russian interests (former Soviet Union countries), and another for the rest of the world.

Russian public diplomacy for former Soviet Union countries should be proactive, wide-ranging, counterbalancing of Western influence and reliant on Russian and local languages. Russia should invest 80 to 90 percent of total public diplomacy resources in this sphere and the remainder in other international efforts. Such delineation is recognized by the Russian government, but I doubt that the resources are allocated in the required proportion.

The main goals of Russian public diplomacy toward the rest of the world could theoretically be defined as follows: converting the worldwide public to an alternative Russian ideology, informing international opinion leaders, experts and interested people on the Russian interpretation of invents; and enhancing Russia’s public image in general.

The first of these goals is senseless for a number of reasons. Russia is one of the key members of the capitalist world-economy system and, thus, cannot have an alternative ideology to the one that underpins this system. Russian conservatism and pragmatism are not a different ideology but rather a competing view within the same ideological framework of the capitalist system.

The main issue for Russia at the moment is Western antagonism to Russian independence. As soon as this independence (and thus Russia's sphere of interest) is accepted, the antagonism will disappear, and the differences between the conservative and militant proselytizing approach could be reduced to scholarly debate.

What remains as the main focus of Russian public diplomacy are the goals of informing international opinion leaders, the expert community and interested public on Russian views, as well as enhancing the Russian public image abroad. There are a number of tools that can be used for these purposes.

The Russia Today TV channel is a good tool. However, the focus of Russia Today should be on quality internet broadcasting that will become easily accessible on television sets in the future, as the technology progresses. Russia Today has no chance of competing with the CNN and BBC duopoly on cable and satellite networks due to prohibitive costs, entrenched habits of the viewers and potential reluctance of network owners, who are part of the Western media system.

Russia Profile, the Valday Forum, conferences and inserts in leading newspapers are excellent tools for targeting opinion leaders and the expert community. Russia should do much more in this area by expanding the scope and selection of tools, and improving the already functioning projects. For instance, Russia Profile could broaden its appeal and reach by launching a podcasting service.

Russian NGOs in Western countries are a waste of time and money, unless their goal is limited to information gathering, engaging with local opinion leaders and experts, and training a new generation of Russian diplomats. Attempts to counter-balance Western NGOs on their own turf are neither necessary nor feasible.

And finally, Russia should step up the old Soviet public diplomacy efforts beneficial for its image such as cultural exchanges, concerts, exhibitions, etc. These events have a much better effect on a wider range of the educated public than all the other tools put together.

The bottom line is that Russia is taking some necessary steps in the public diplomacy arena, but the implementation strategy may well require substantial revision in order to achieve practicable goals and make a decent return on investments.

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Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow:

Peter Finn's article on the Kremlin's efforts to polish Russia's image abroad provides a pretty accurate and balanced description of various projects in this field, funded either directly by the government or by the private sector, when the latter gets a nod from the top. Unfortunately, so far this investment has brought only a few and rather modest results. The Western media bias regarding Russia is so overwhelming that even if the Kremlin increases its PR budget by one or two orders of magnitude, little will change.

Take, for example, the Washington Post editorials. Contrary to their Moscow bureau chief Peter Finn's objective and neutral news reporting, the Post editorials are saturated with such a vicious anti-Russian rhetoric that one wonders if the people who write them have some personal problems.

For example, the editorial which followed the election of the new Russian president Dmitry Medvedev contained a very peculiar "congratulatory" statement, calling for not inviting him to the next G8 meeting, despite the obvious fact that, with all the numerous deficiencies of the Russian electoral system, Medvedev was elected by a landslide by any standard.

The Washington Post's editorials definitely contravene any reasonable Western journalistic standards. Unfortunately, such views are expressed not only in this paper, but in the majority of the Western media. One could, if not justify, then at least understand politicians who use the same negative rhetoric to score election points. They simply do not like to see a resurgent Russia with its newly acquired assertive foreign policy. However, when the supposedly free Western media does the same, it makes one wonder just how free it is – from prejudice, if nothing more sinister.

Some analysts believe that it is the disgraced oligarchs’ money, particularly money coming from Boris Berezovsky and his colleagues, oiling this negative anti-Russian campaign. There is probably some truth in this. Rather than hiding his agenda, the London-based tycoon uses every chance to advertise his efforts to undermine and discredit the Kremlin. With the billions he has at his disposal it is not too difficult for him to plant suitable stories in the media. However, it would take a lot more than Berezovsky to get where we are today.

So before making any new investments in its PR campaign, the Kremlin might be well advised to do a major research study of the roots of the Western media bias vis-a-vis modern Russia. To treat the sickness successfully one should first know its origins. I am sure there are some respectable agencies that can do this job professionally.

In the meantime, the best approach would be not to throw good money after bad but to concentrate instead on developing and promoting a large-scale East-West cooperation agenda.

The peak in U.S.-Russian relations was reached in the fall of 2001, when Vladimir Putin offered George Bush substantial and real help to combat Islamist terrorism. At that time, both the Congress and the White House used to praise Russia on every occasion, and Washington's anti-Russian lobby kept pretty quiet.

The changing of the guard in the Kremlin and the White House gives both nations a chance to get a fresh start. Russia can offer a lot to America in the war on terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, space research, alternative sources of energy, climate control, developing the Arctic shelf, and even Afghanistan, where both the United States and NATO are hopelessly stuck. Even such an exotic theme as destroying incoming asteroids could contribute to a better climate in U.S.-Russia relations.

Washington, in return, should at least try not to antagonize Russia, slow down on NATO expansion, reinvigorate the U.S.-Russia Council, offer more ideas for joint missile defense and stop lecturing the Russians on democracy. Loud Western applause of the Yeltsin brand of democracy in the nineties was too traumatic, and a lot of tact is needed while those wounds heal. Insensitive, brash criticism of what is seen through Western eyes as "backsliding on democracy" is a sure recipe for alienation.

Frankly, if one reads statements emanating from all three leading candidates for the U.S. presidency, Obama, Clinton and McCain, there is little hope that any one of them is ready to adopt the approach advocated here. All of them use pretty arrogant language, even resorting to name-calling – which sounds pretty pathetic. This does not mean that Dmitry Medvedev, on his part, should reciprocate in kind. Instead he should take a high road, ignore the negative outbursts and keep pushing the cooperation agenda.

The great thing about democracy is that, no matter how powerful your opponents are and how biased the media is, you can still get your message across. If this message is positive and full of hope, the American people will hear it. Eventually they may force their politicians to change their tune.

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James George Jatras , Principal, Squire Sanders Public Advocacy, LLC and Director, American Council for Kosovo, Washington D.C.:

There’s more than a little irony in the suggestion that Moscow’s expenditures on public diplomacy are designed as a response to the U.S. government-linked NED, IRI, NDI, Freedom House, International Crisis Group, Open Society Institute, and the rest of the “Demintern” apparat. After all, back in the early 1980s, when the whole concept of “public diplomacy” was little more than a twinkle in the eyes of various Reagan-era officials (myself having been an accomplice, I regret to say), it was conceived mainly as a countermeasure to the well-established web of communist fronts and dezinformatsiya outlets.

Na?ve lad that I was, it never occurred to me what a monster our handiwork would become once the Cold War ended and the United States had anointed itself the revolutionary vanguard of all progressive humanity, bestowing (by force if necessary) the “democratic gospel” on all retrograde nations.

So now, in a sense, the tables are turned. Moscow needs to come up with a defense of its national interests from Washington’s global ideology. The important thing is that they’ve made a start.

The question of whether Moscow is getting its money’s worth is a complicated one. Some of the efforts are clearly worthwhile and cost-effective. The references to Russia Profile need no further comment. For the American viewer, Russia Today comes across well, and is comparable to the English-language services of other foreign networks seen in the United States. Russia Today’s biggest problem is that it does not reach a sufficient number of American households, and many of those who do have access can see it only for a half hour or an hour a day.

It is my understanding that a significant limitation on Russia Today’s viewership is phony legal restrictions by American authorities. (Never mind the squawking that emanates from Washington if any country dares to obstruct Voice of America or the ludicrously obsolete “surrogate” RFE/RL.)

For what it’s worth, my advice is that Russia Today take strong legal action, coupled with an active lobbying and PR campaign, against the discriminatory obstacles it faces. The public attention would be as valuable as the potential result for greater access to additional U.S. cable and broadcast outlets.

An essential element that has not yet become a feature of the Russian public diplomacy counterattack is to “nativize” Russia’s message. That is, there is a world of difference between Russia’s story being told to foreign audiences by Russians, versus that story’s being told by natives in their own idiom. Americans can present the Russian perspective to Americans better than Russians can, Frenchmen to Frenchmen, Germans to Germans, etc.

Moreover, the use of indigenous human resources in the target countries, above all in the United States, can identify and package themes favorable to Russia in a way that resonates with specific audiences identified by profession, political orientation, religion, ethnicity, and other descriptors. Finally, such native resources must demonstrate a proven track record of work consistent with Russian interests to ensure unquestionable reliability. (There are many examples of foreign interests hiring Americans with a history of work for their new clients’ adversaries, with predictably disappointing results.)

Ultimately, to achieve the intended result, the Russian campaign must be able to show Americans (and citizens of other target countries respectively) why a favorable policy toward Russia is good not only for Russia but for their own country and for a stable and mutually beneficial international order.

In light of such made-in-Washington outrages as attempts to expand NATO to Ukraine and Georgia, illegal recognition of Kosovo, and the misnamed global “democracy” campaign (which in the Islamic world is paving the way for accession to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and other elements advocating revival of the Caliphate and presenting a danger to all peaceful and tolerant societies), the Russian position stands to benefit Americans no less than Russians. That case can and must be made.

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Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, D.C. 20001 & Scholar-in-Residence, School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C. :

When Russian government authorities and specialists on the U.S. assess the effectiveness of the country's "public diplomacy" efforts, there are at least three principles that must be acknowledged. First, actions speak louder than words. Second, develop one's "message" so that it is relevant to the target audience. Third, don't expect immediate results.

Russia's current efforts in this area may be more professional than that in the post-Khruschev era, but I think they have not yielded any significant results. Russia's only real friends in the West are those corporations and individuals who hope to enrich themselves from their commercial relationships.

It is unrealistic to think that informed individuals change their opinions as a result of reading an article, listening to a radio program or watching a movie produced by a foreign country viewed with suspicion. Nonetheless, the very same information if set forth in an honest and dispassionate manner may allow the target audience to better understand the motivations of the rival (adversary), particularly if the message is conveyed in a well-reasoned manner.

With this in mind, it would be a courageous, but forward thinking, step for President-elect Medvedev to end the Russian state monopoly over television, perhaps by entering into an arrangement with the BBC and/or CNN to give Russian citizens an independent source of information about the world (after all, the Russian government can purchase advertisements and supplements to American and English newspapers).

Indeed it is possible, that one side may begin to better understand the concerns of the other as a result – which is certainly a positive (albeit limited) outcome. It is unrealistic to expect that Russia and the U.S. will have similar foreign policy goals on most global issues. There are areas where there is a commonality of interest (such as the creation of a hotline to reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war). This illustrates that not every international interaction is a zero-sum game.

When there is communication, there are opportunities for identifying possible areas of cooperation. Professional and student long-term exchanges (i.e. three to six months, that is, in contrast to short visits) should be encouraged. The development of trained cadres who are informed about the other country can lead to mutually beneficial results. Personal relationships can give rise to friendship and trust.

Ideally, individuals informed about the other country can counteract those who are quick to ascribe sinister motivations to the other side's actions. People who share common professional backgrounds, doctors, engineers, lawyers, scientists, etc., will have an easier time developing relationships than will people who lack common professional interests.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, both the U.S. and Russia had unrealistically high expectations of what one country could and was willing to do for the other. This led to disillusionment and strengthened those whose principal life-forming experiences occurred during the Cold War. Fortunately, with the passage of time such persons will die off.

This is not to suggest that the U.S. and Russia will have an identity of interests, but the competitive aspects of the relationship will diminish over time. Those interest groups whose positions are enhanced by the maintenance of tense relations are likely to be weakened.

Often it appears to me that much of the Russian expenditures to influence U.S. public opinion are a waste of money. Russian governmental control of the media, the centralization of political power in Moscow, the violation of civil liberties and human rights cannot be counteracted through a skillful media campaign.

The U.S. has learned this lesson as a result of its failed policies in Iraq (as a result of arrogance, ignorance, poor planning and corruption). The U.S. government and NGOs are taking steps to correct the situation. It will take many years for the U.S. to regain the international goodwill it built up over the years. Well-made films or insightful lectures cannot correct the situation in a vacuum.

The U.S. missed a great opportunity in the 1990s to change Russian society along more desirable lines. The resulting setbacks were compounded by an attitude that the U.S need not be constrained by international law.

Russian policies in Chechnya, toleration of corruption at the expense of the Russian population, and a lack of the rule of law since 2000 have had similar effects in postponing the change in Russian political culture. Reform may occur if Russia suffers economic setbacks, just as the U.S. has experienced both military and economic setbacks.

Fortunately, people have short memories and even shorter attention spans. Thus, change is inevitable. Man was not designed to live forever.

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Professor Stephen Blank, The US Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

I cannot tell how effective Russian NGOs are in affecting Western attitudes. Certainly Russian money is quite effective, however. But as for teaching the West about Russian democracy, this is risible. There is no democracy in Russia and it is becoming more autocratic and authoritarian by the day. Narochintskaya's views, as Vladimir says, are bizarre, or more precisely very Russian nationalist.

Moreover, agencies funded by Moscow, as opposed to privately funded U.S. and Western NGOs are not credible as independent objective spokesmen. While the PR effort is extensive, I doubt it will convince anyone who wants to maintain an open mind or who has an inkling, if not more as to what Russia really is.
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